Unless you live in another country, but in that case, the odds are that you live in that country’s heartland. If that statement strikes you as odd, it’s probably because of the way the word heartland is deliberately misused.
On the surface, the word might seem to refer simply to a country’s geographical interior, but in America it has layers of meaning far beyond that. In America, the use of heartland escalates during election season. I say “escalates” rather than “increases” because the word is used as a weapon. It’s also a dog whistle and a push on a button, and it’s effective in both regards. The heartland is understood to mean America with the evil, degenerate coasts removed. The East and West Coasts, at any rate; the Gulf Coast is increasingly iffy. The heartland also excludes inland cities that are dominated by the same evil degenerates. Those are political liberals of all kinds, racial and ethnic minorities, and academics. Because of the latter, university towns are also not part of the heartland. Gulf Coast cities such as Houston and New Orleans are also excluded from the heartland.
What’s left is taken to represent the real America. The so−called heartland’s racial and ethnic makeup, its religiosity, social attitudes, presumed disdain for learning, even its preferences in music, sports, and movies—all of these are what the Founding Fathers intended America to be. Everything not part of the heartland is an aberration.
Of course, this is absurd in terms of both numbers and history.
By 2010, the United States had reached an urbanization level of 81%, and that number is still increasing. Even the South, the least urbanized section of the country, is 76% urbanized. Worldwide, the percentage of the population living in urban areas is almost 55%. That number is growing steadily. It will be two−thirds by 2030. By mid−century, almost two−thirds (64%) of the population of the developing world will be urbanized; in the developed world, the number will be 86%. The worldwide average will be 70%. Nearly all future population growth worldwide will occur in urbanized areas.
The word civilization derives ultimately from the Latin word civitas, meaning city. That’s not coincidence. Cities are the source of civilization and its driving engine. How do we discover an ancient civilization whose existence was previously unknown? We find signs of its cities. Cities have always been the home of culture, learning, science, technology, innovation, art, and liberation from social and religious shackles. From the ancient coastal cities of the Philistines to Rome to London to New York to Los Angeles, their lure is irresistible. “Come to us,” they say to the countryside, “and give your mind and soul free rein.”
Fewer than a fifth of Americans live in that countryside, and that percentage is shrinking. Their world is dying. Jobs are disappearing, their young are leaving for the jobs and lifestyle opportunities of the cities, and even their life expectancy is dropping. (They do produce much of our food, but even that is under the control of giant corporations with headquarters in major cities.) They resent the cities and believe comforting myths about their moral superiority to decadent urbanites—attitudes that politicians are quick to appeal to—but the world ignores them and leaves them ever further behind.
Occasionally, years later, one of those young people returns to the home town to retire. Nostalgia, cheap housing, aged family members who need help—there are numerous reasons for the move. For a time, they may well feel that they’ve finally come home again. That probably doesn’t last for long. It’s more likely that they’ll feel a powerful need to keep in touch with the city life they left. The Internet, cable television, and the Interstate Highway system give them access to that previous life. They haven’t really immured themselves again in the old home town—which is no longer the town they remember and perhaps never was. The town has changed; they’ve changed even more.
Politicians will keep using the image of the heartland as a rhetorical device to appeal to voters in non−urban, non−university−town America. They will pretend to be just like those voters. They will continue to address crowds while wearing painfully new blue jeans. They’ll arrive at rallies in rented pickup trucks. In time, those politicians will decrease in number and importance along with their constituency.
Cities create and control our culture, our wealth, our lifestyles—in America, everything but our politics. Even that will change. The disproportionate political influence of non−urban voters is due to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the absurd Electoral College. The process might be slow and painful, but in time, urban population growth and demographic changes will finally eliminate even those injustices and aberrations. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, the supposed heartland, contributes little to American civilization and less every year.
The non−urban population is increasingly irrelevant and properly ignored. In what sense can this small and dwindling population be called the heartland? Clearly, the true heart of America beats in its cities. Cities are the heartland of America and increasingly of the world.